It’s Not Just WHAT Donors Think, It’s HOW They Think that Matters

When certain fundraising experts have something to say, we all would be wise to pay close attention. Bernard Ross, Director of =mc consulting (The Management Centre based in the UK), is one of those insightful voices.

I’ve been among the legion of fans Bernard has attracted through his consulting work, conference lectures, articles, and books. Bernard’s latest volume, Change for Good written with Omar Mahmoud, demonstrates that fundraising is more than an art; it is also a science.

The publisher’s book description reads:

This breakthrough book is about how we as human beings make decisions — and how anyone involved in the field of social change can help individuals or groups to make positive choices using decision science. It draws on the latest thinking in behavioural economics, neuroscience and evolutional psychology to provide a powerful practical toolkit for fundraisers, campaigners, advocacy specialists, policy makers, health professionals, educationalists and social activists.”

Change for Good introduces readers to 10 key persuasion principles that will help fundraising professionals introduce decision science into their work as they strive to raise more money. For a decade or more, the for-profit sector has used decision science to influence people to make particular choices, whether to purchase something, accept certain behaviors, or take specific action. Now, this book, by Ross and Mahmoud, makes this profound knowledge accessible to fundraisers.

Not only will your nonprofit organization benefit when you read Change for Good, so will Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. That’s because the authors are donating the profits from book sales to the international charity.

Bernard’s generosity does not end there. He has kindly provided us with a special article that demonstrates the importance of understanding both WHAT and HOW people think. In his guest post below, Bernard demonstrates the impact that decision science can have with real-life examples. In addition, you’ll be able to download a free summary sheet that provides valuable highlights from Change for Good.

I thank Bernard for his willingness to provide the following material:


Fundraisers are often concerned about changing hearts and minds. And they’re often, especially when prompted by colleagues in advocacy or communications, interested in increasing supporters’ conscious engagement with the cause. But, is this the best or only way to improve pro-social behavior — whether it’s increasing donations, using less plastic, or avoiding bias?

Let’s begin with the science. Fundamental to decision-making is the premise that much of our data processing and decision-making is subconscious and fast. Deciding is so fast, even changing our minds can be difficult. According to some recent research at Johns Hopkins University if we change our minds within roughly 100 milliseconds of making a decision, we can successfully revise our plans. If we wait more than 200 milliseconds, however, we may be unable to make the desired change. That’s not very long to persuade a donor to not look away from our TV ad or crumple our direct-mail pack.

But, it’s not just our visual process that’s important. For example, other senses are also important, especially smell. In a test between two Nike stores, one with a very faint “consciously undetectable” scent and one without, customers were 80 percent more likely to purchase in the scented store.

In another experiment at a petrol (gas) station with a mini-mart attached to it, pumping the smell of coffee into the store saw purchases of the drink grow 300 percent.

If you take the time to wander into the M&M World candy store in Leicester Square London, you might now notice the smell of chocolate. When it first opened in 2011, it did not have the smell and sales were disappointing. They hired a company called ScentAir who specialize in adding signature scents to stores. The managing director of the company, Christopher Pratt, said in an article describing the effect, “It looked like the place should smell of chocolate, it didn’t. It does now.” And sales have moved in response.

There was a similar positive response when the National Trust, a UK heritage charity, included a “scratch and sniff” element in an appeal to save a flower meadow.

When you visit a charity website, the conscious brain analyses the message content. (What is the cause I am being asked to support? What do they want me to do — donate, sign a petition, or join up?) At the same time, the subconscious brain continuously responds to how you react to the subtle background and peripheral cues. (How do I feel about the colours, images, celebrities involved, etc.?)


“I always thought the brain was the most wonderful organ in my body. And then one day it occurred to me, ‘Wait a minute, who’s telling me that?'”

Emo Philips


It’s not all about you either. Your subconscious brain has a mind of its own. Some signals also come from inside us, and we look unconsciously for opportunities to confirm our inner state. When we are in a good mood, we are more likely to tolerate our colleagues and partners and are more likely to donate to charities. These activities become a way to validate or confirm our inner feelings. Let’s look at an example of how this affects our behaviour.

In some companies, and many cost conscious charities, employees can serve themselves coffee or tea after putting the relevant amount in an “honesty box” next to the drinks in a kitchen. In an experiment run over 10 weeks, researchers at Newcastle University in the UK found that employees were open to subconscious influence based on the picture that they were exposed to. People put more money in the honesty box in the weeks when there was a small, 13cm x 3cm, picture of eyes on the wall of the kitchen, than when it was a similar-sized picture of flowers. Researcher Melissa Bateson reported staff paid 2.73 times more, on average, when the eyes rather than the flower picture was present.

Over three days at the International Fundraising Congress in Holland, we repeated this experiment using soft drinks. Delegates did indeed put more money in the tin provided when overlooked by a picture of eyes than they did with a picture of tulips.

None of the respondents in either experiment consciously noticed the difference between the two images when they were subsequently questioned. But, at some subconscious level, the impact of eyes was important.

The original research concluded that eyes act as a symbol of social supervision, suggesting someone is observing you and serving as a cure for pro-social behaviour. Meredith Niles, one of the UK’s leading fundraisers, and an American, points out that “the ‘eye of providence’ or ‘all seeing eye’ (visible on every US dollar bill) represents an omniscient god.” She suggests this image has been used across cultures for many centuries to encourage “correct” behaviour.

We may not have always had the science to demonstrate the impact of the eye, but we have had strong intuitions about the conscious brain. The experimenters activated employees’ social consciousness urging them to do what is socially correct. This serves as an excellent illustration of the power of the subconscious brain to process information and take decisions all by itself.

In these, and in many other related experiments, subjects are not only unaware of the cues that drive their behaviour, they refuse to believe that such cues had any influence on their decisions, when told about the experiment. Our hearts “dominate” our minds.

In fact, there is real evidence that our expressed attitudes are not a great guide to our behaviour. We don’t always do what we say we would do but will come up with a rationale for why not. Colin Camerer, a respected behavioural scientist, has a blunt explanation: “The human brain is like a monkey brain with a cortical ‘press secretary,’ who is glib at concocting explanations of behaviour and who privileges deliberative explanations over cruder ones.” (For more on this see another blog I’ve written: Stop Listening to Your Supporters.)

What is the implication of this subconscious processing for fundraisers and more generally for individuals involved in social change?

Websites, mailings, video clips, and other communications media can deliver subtle cues in the background to drive subconscious behaviour while the conscious brain believes it is assessing “the cause” in a rational way. The same “eyes” experiment could encourage employees involved in food preparation to wash their hands after visiting the toilet. Or, as suggested above, you could try putting eyes on or near a static charity collection box in a gallery, shop, hotel reception, or pub counter to see if that increases your donations. We have tested this a number of times in various settings with consistent success. In one specific example, eyes placed over a charitable donation box increased donations 48 percent vs. a control with no eyes.

Macmillan Cancer Support, a major UK charity, has taken this idea of personal “eyes” interaction to a whole new level. They tested the advert below in a London shopping mall.

Macmillan Cancer Support dynamic billboard advertisement.

It uses face recognition technology to change the message displayed according to whether it is mostly men or mostly women walking past. Women get, “No Mum Should Face Cancer Alone” and men, “No Dad Should Face Cancer Alone.” Both versions then prompt a £5 text donation. When the immediate audience is less than 60/40 in one gender, a generic ad is shown, “No One Should Face Cancer Alone.”

The implication of all this? As I began, fundraisers are often concerned to change hearts and minds. The data we’re gathering, working with international agencies like the Red Cross and Red Crescent, MSF, and UNICEF is that this approach to using subconscious prompts has greater impact on behaviour.


Change for Good will teach you how to leverage anchor ideas, choose the right timing for messages, nudge gently and ethically, be social and reciprocal, tell powerful stories, touch emotions, provide the right amount of information, and more.

While having a solid case for support is essential to the fundraising process (the what), fundraising professionals also need to understand how donors think and make decisions so that they can present the case for support in a meaningful way that inspires greater charitable giving.

For a free download summarizing the highlights from Change for Good, click here.

To learn more about Bernard’s fascinating, valuable books and to purchase them from Amazon, click on the titles below:

Change for Good

Breakthrough Thinking for Nonprofit Organizations

Global Fundraising: How the World is Changing the Rules of Philanthropy

The Influential Fundraiser

The Strategy Workout

That’s what Bernard Ross and Michael Rosen say… What do you say?

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